The duo in a St. Paul sex trafficking operation were brutal to their three victims: One woman was baited with casual heroin use and kept drugged up for sex. Another was forced to use cocaine and was beaten when she refused to cooperate. A third — not yet old enough to vote — was forced to have sex with several men over three days.

Criminal charges filed in Ramsey County allege that the two suspects worked in tandem. One is a man. The other is a woman who allegedly also was trafficked, raising questions about how authorities determine when a woman is a victim and when she's a willing participant.

"That's a very important thing, because so many women are viewed as being suspects," said Vednita Carter, founder and president of Breaking Free, a nonprofit that advocates for women who have been sexually exploited. "No woman enjoys being prostituted."

Defense attorney A.L. Brown said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi's office got it wrong when it charged Laqueshia Danekia-Kay'D Moran alongside Darryl Taylor with running the St. Paul operation.

"She's not a pimp," Brown said of his client. "She's a victim, and even if she did everything [authorities] claimed, that would be a byproduct of the abuse from the real pimp."

Advocates and Carter have praised Ramsey County for its work in the area, but the Moran case tests authorities' promise to take a "victim-centered" approach to such crimes. Moran, who is in jail, is scheduled to go to trial Feb. 13.

St. Paul police said it's their obligation to investigate allegations of crime while leaving decisions about culpability up to Choi's office. Choi said he won't let crimes go unpunished. Both said they approach women as victims until evidence suggests otherwise.

"It's a complicated process," Choi said. "Laws are being broken … and we're not going to sit idly by and say someone shouldn't be prosecuted because of their gender or … what their broad circumstances might be."

A second-in-command

The majority of suspects charged in Ramsey County sex trafficking cases are men. But a report issued in December by the court monitoring group, WATCH, showed that female defendants made up about 27 percent of the 36 sex trafficking cases charged in Ramsey County between 2012 and late 2016. The report said that two-thirds of women charged in both Ramsey and Hennepin counties were arrested with male co-defendants.

Moran, 23, is charged with two counts of promoting prostitution and one count each of promoting prostitution of a minor, soliciting a minor to prostitute and trafficking a minor.

Taylor, who also is known as Darrell Wood, 37, is charged with one count of soliciting a minor to prostitute and three counts of trafficking an individual.

The charges against Moran and Taylor said the two were boyfriend and girlfriend at some point in 2015. The alleged crimes occurred between April of 2015 and April of 2016.

It's widely accepted that many women in sex trafficking operations are first romantically wooed by men who take advantage of their emotional and mental vulnerabilities. They're then trafficked for money. Over time, some are turned into a "bottom" or "bottom bitch," a term used to describe a male pimp's second-in-command. Abuse is commonly used to coerce them into obedience.

St. Paul police investigator, Sgt. Sean Johnson, and Choi acknowledged that, but said a "bottom" can become culpable for her actions.

"They may have been a victim of that [pimp] at one time, but they have now kind of transcended into kind of a co-conspirator. …" Johnson said.

"I do think it's a conscious choice," Choi said. "It truly is a conscious choice when you cross that line and you start perpetrating against other people, and you're participating in the commercial sex trafficking of other people … and someone has to say that they were the wrong choices."

Carter disagrees.

"If she got in [trafficking] at a very young age … how would she know she crossed the line if that's all she knows — being bought and sold?" Carter said. "And if she knows, how does she get out?

"She's being pimp-controlled. She's scared. Who's she going to call?"

Some women who are trafficked believe that becoming a "bottom" is their only reprieve from being sold, Carter said.

Women shouldn't be exempt from prosecution, she said, but authorities need to look at a woman's history.

For Brown, Moran's association with Taylor doesn't stray from the "bottom" narrative. The women who occupy that role often recruit victims, teach them how to prostitute, place ads and answer calls from Johns — all allegations levied against Moran.

"This is the thing that boggles me about this case: That we hear all of this sweet talk from the county attorney's office about how they're not going to treat victims like perpetrators anymore, and I want to know what's wrong with my client that she can't be seen in that same light?" Brown said.

Moran issued threat

The charges against Moran give this account: In 2015, Moran, who was 20 at the time, housed a 17-year-old victim in her apartment, where the girl had sex with about 30 men for $150 to $160 per sex act. The girl gave the money to Moran.

At some point the girl ran into Moran at the Mall of America, and Moran allegedly said that if Moran went to jail, the girl "should say goodbye to everyone she loves."

"Moran described herself and Taylor as hustlers, which she described as someone that gets stuff out of people," the complaint said.

According to charges filed against Taylor, a 23-year-old victim told investigators that Taylor trafficked Moran along with the other women. Moran was depicted in "many" of the photos found in "hundreds" of ads tied to the case.

The 23-year-old went on to describe her ordeal: "On one occasion [the 23-year-old] tried to leave and the defendant threatened her with a gun and choked her until she passed out."

Taylor has a long history of abuse. He pleaded guilty in 1995 to sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel bathroom while her 6-year-old daughter was nearby. Taylor threatened to rape the child if the woman didn't comply.

In April 2016, a victim in the trafficking case filed an order for protection against Taylor. She noted that she and Taylor were romantic partners from November 2015 to March 2016.

"This person has beaten me up numerous times, and I only stayed because I was afraid of him," the woman wrote. "On 3/16/16 he brutally attacked me and busted my head open and cut my hair … He took me away from my family and friends."

The pressures placed on women only intensify once authorities step in. The women usually are key to prosecuting the men, and their help is looked upon favorably.

In determining whether a woman is a victim or a suspect, Choi said, authorities consider age, use of violence, level of control, benefits received and the victims' input.

"This is a really important one — cooperation with the investigation," Choi said. "We're not going to be sympathetic to somebody who thinks what they did was just fine."

In 2013, Choi's office charged four men and a woman in a sex trafficking ring. After all four men were convicted, prosecutors dropped charges against the woman even though one victim said she was "intimately involved" in the trafficking.

"She obviously testified truthfully throughout the process … and we feel that her role was more that of a victim than a perpetrator," county attorney spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein said at the time.

Carter and Brown said they understand the importance of cooperation, but disagree with how it's sometimes handled.

"I'm always disappointed when I hear about these cases," Carter said. "She's going to be closed-mouth because she's seen him hurt other women."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib